of union security agreements exist. Among the more common are:
The employer agrees to hire only union members. Any employee who
quits the union, or is expelled from it, must be fired
The firm may first employ non union members, but the employee
must eventually join the union
The employer may hire anyone he wishes regardless of their union
membership, and the employee need not join the union. However,
all non-union employees must pay a fee to the union to cover the
costs of collective bargaining
off. A contract between the employer and union where the former
agrees to pay to the latter the union dues from each worker's
work laws would forbid all such agreements. One justification
for such legislation is that these union contracts are invalid,
since they are made under duress. Organized labor compels businesses
to sign them by threatening all sorts of violence against them,
some legal, others illegal. But suppose, hypothetically, that
an agreement of this sort were strictly voluntary. Posit that
an extreme left wing, "progressive," firm such as Ben
and Jerryís ice cream or Michael Moore Enterprises wanted, desired,
was more than willing to, engage in such a commercial interaction
with a union. Right to work laws, in forbidding such an arrangement,
would then be a violation of the rights of two consenting parties
to engage in a capitalist act. Thus, on that ground alone such
legislative enactments are incompatible with libertarianism.
But, do not
right to work laws prohibit coercion? Under a closed shop, for
example, the worker has no right to be employed by a firm, nor
the latter to hire him, unless he first joins the union. Is not
a closed shop, then, an instance of coercion? And should not libertarians
thus applaud right to work legislation, since it puts an end to
this type of compulsion?
No, and no.
Suppose woman A and man B agree to a monogamous relationship (marriage).
This means that woman A may not go to bed with man C. But what
of the claim that this arrangement is a violation of man Cís "right"
to have a sexual relationship with woman A? This is silly. There
is no such thing as a "right" to have intercourse with
woman A, or with any other woman.
an exact parallel between this scenario and the one depicted above.
Let us follow the same situation, only applied, now, to labor
relations, not personal relationships.
woman A and worker man B agree
to a monogamous relationship (the union shop marriage).
This means that company woman A may not hire
man C, who is not a union member. But what of the claim that this
is a violation of man Cís "right" to work for have
a sexual relationship with company woman
A. This is silly. There is no such thing as a "right"
to have a job with company A, or any other employer.
To put this
into other words, a "right to work" is a positive right.
It implies an obligation of someone else to hire the person in
question. Similarly, a "right" to food, clothing or
shelter would oblige others to provide these things for the persons
who have such "rights." But positive rights are a direct
violation of the libertarian code, which is based upon the non
aggression principle. These types of "rights" are a
not so subtly hidden demand for wealth at otherís expense, e.g.,
they amount to a call for, or support of, theft. No libertarian
can support them.
libertarians do indeed support negative rights, the right not
to be murdered, raped, aggressed against. And, yes, this does
impose an obligation upon others Ė to refrain from such nefarious
the firm, under the closed shop, is "compelled" not
to hire a non union worker, that is, it is prohibited from so
doing. But we are positing for the moment that this prohibition
stems from a prior contractual agreement, the closed shop,
so it is not a compulsion at all. In the same way, the monogamously
married woman is "compelled" not to get it on with any
other man; she is prohibited from engaging in adultery. But this
prohibition stems from a prior contractual agreement, marriage,
so it, too, does not amount to any compulsion.
Let us leave
the realm of deontology for the moment, and enter that of utilitarianism.
There is no doubt that, other things equal, right to work states
would be more prosperous, have less unemployment, than those without
this legislation. Why? This is because unions, as presently constituted,
are an economic tape worm. They suck the substance out of companies
with their strikes, slow-downs, work-to-rule campaigns, etc. It
is no accident that the northeast part of the U.S., where unions
are strongest, has become a "rust belt." Nor that the
south, where they are weakest, has been booming, relatively speaking.
To give just one instance, the northern auto workers "earned"
something in the neighborhood of $70 per hour (when all fringe
benefits are included) for semi-skilled work on the assembly line;
as a result, Detroit is a husk of its former self. In contrast,
auto workers in the southeast earn a small fraction of that hourly
wage. As a result, "run away" shops are seeking to vote
with their feet, moving from north to south, in their search for
a more reasonably priced labor force.
mean that the libertarian opposition to right to work laws, while
just, is also economically inefficient? Not a bit of it. There
is a right way and a wrong way to combat evil unionism, and right
to work laws are in the latter category.
What is wrong
with unions? Why are they such evil, monstrous organizations?
All present labor unions engage in two activities, one of them
justifiable, the other despicable. What is the proper role for
a union, in the libertarian society? It is to try to raise total
wages (money wages plus fringe benefits or working conditions
or psychic income) to the highest level possible. And, to that
end, these institutions have two means at their disposal, one
licit, the other decidedly not.
is the mass quit. When one worker goes to the boss and demands
a raise, he is not likely to be met with much success. The owner
of the firm might well follow the "my way or the highway"
philosophy. But if the employee can credibly threaten that if
the raise is not forthcoming all 500 employees will down tools,
success is more likely. The owner has contracts to fulfill, a
work force that actually functions, etc. Any one worker has the
right to quit his job, based on the libertarian notion of free
association. (The main, and indeed the only real problem
with slavery was that you couldnít quit. If the slave could quit
at any time, all of the evils of this "curious" institution
would evaporate in one fell swoop.) He does not lose this right
even if he does this in concert with his fellow employees (although
early on, anti-trust legislation was improperly applied to people
who engaged in these "restraints of trade.") So much
for proper unionism. If organized labor limited itself to this
one tactic, it would be acting compatibly with the non aggression
principle (NAP) of libertarianism, and would not cause any economic
employ another strategy as well: restrictions on entry. In the
bad old days, organized labor would engage in a sit-in, or a picket
line (both amount to trespass). They would stop all shipments
into our out of the plant. They would brand as "scabs"
all those who wanted to take the job offers made by the firm,
the ones they were refusing (why this never qualified as "hate
speech" is beyond me; no, it isnít really, but it is entirely
a different matter), and through violence not allow the employer
to hire them.
to our marriage analogy once again, it would be justified for
a man to divorce his wife (or the other way around, of course).
But it would be the height of barbarism for him to surround his
ex wifeís home with his friends, and them all threaten to beat
up any man she wished to date after her marriage was over. Yet,
this is precisely what was being done in the early days
of unions, and still occurs even in recent times.
of course, this "blue collar" beating up of scabs has
given way to labor legislation which compels the owner of the
company to "bargain fairly" with the union. But just
as husbands and wives should not be forced to "bargain fairly"
with one another when either of them wants a divorce, neither
should this compulsion be imposed on either side in labor management
relations. The firm does not wish to "bargain fairly"
with its unionized employees; it desires to hire replacement workers,
or "scabs." It is prohibited from doing so, in direct
violation of its freedom of association. It is forced to "associate"
with people it wishes to avoid. There is a strong analogy between
this situation and outright slavery: both cases are instance of
the violation of freedom of association.
So what is
to be done about the union menace? Simple, take away from them
their illegitimate tool, trespass and restrictions on entry,
and leave them with their one licit tactic, mass quits. It is
contrary to libertarian principles to do anything else: to democratize
them (ensure they use secret ballots), take away their right to
support political candidates, or to forbid them by law to engage
in freely made contractual agreements, such as union shops, closed
shops, etc. We would be aghast if the chess club were prohibited
from supporting political candidates, or were compelled to run
according to democratic principles. The chess club is a legitimate
organization, and thus, at least according to libertarianism,
may do anything it wishes, provided, only, that it does not violate
the NAP. Ditto for a properly defanged union movement; once it
is fully legitimate, it may carry on in any way it wishes.
political participation, compelling democracy, imposing right
to work laws, etc., are all second best attempts to wrestle evil
unionism to the ground. If it is politically possible to counter
organized labor in any other way, these sorts of things may well
be justified. But, if we are to properly apply libertarian principles
to this arena, let us have no more of this "right to work"
nonsense. We should leave off actually believing that voluntary
agreements for union or closed shops for some strange reason are
compulsory. Of course, they are not. They are merely an instance
of monogamy in labor relations.
If we are
to effectively promote libertarianism, we must start off by accurately
understanding our own philosophy. Proponents of "right"
to work legislation fail in this regard. At the very least, if
they fully understood libertarianism, they would say something
like: Of course, there is no "right" to work. However,
rampant unionism is running amok, and the only way we can deal
with this menace to civilization is via right to work legislation
(or prohibiting them from engaging in the political process, or
shoving democracy down their throats, etc.) We favor right to
work laws not because they are just, per se, but due to the fact
that they ward off a far greater evil.
I donít say
that I favor engaging in this sort of second bestism. There are
problems with it. It is all too similar for my tastes to Milton
Friedman's proposals for school vouchers, etc. But, at least people
who argue in this way demonstrate a keen appreciation of what
libertarianism is all about. There would be something to be said
in behalf of these laws on that ground alone.
of my views on these matters, see Block, Walter E. 2008. Labor
Economics from a Free Market Perspective: Employing the Unemployable.
London, UK: World Scientific Publishing.